Outward Noise; Inward Silence

J. Brent BillJanuary 18, 2021SilencePerSpectives
Outward Noise; Inward Silence

“Shut up,” he explained.

That’s one of my favorite quotes. It comes from an early-20th-century novel by Ring Lardner. Still, even though it’s old, it’s good advice for me. That’s because I’m not good at being quiet. People assume that I must have a genetic bent to being silent, since I’m a lifelong Quaker and silence is a hallmark of Friends' worship and witness.

I live in the land of sound, though, like you. And I like it. When I built my house, I wired it for music and movie dialogue. When I bought my latest car, it came with AM, FM, and satellite radio; a CD player; and a woman who tells me when it’s time to get my oil changed and other things.

Many of us Quakers are naturally noisy people. Worshipful silence, though, is the way we still our inner and outer noise and busyness long enough to really listen for the God who says . . . “Says what?” Well, that depends at least partly on us and what the Divine knows we need to hear. When we’re silent and still, we sink down into a quiet that lets us feel the stirrings in the deepest parts of our souls. Our inner ears open. Awareness comes to us as we center in silence. We are taught in the deepest, richest, most silent part of our souls as we listen and hear and become clear about how to move forward with our lives.

Society teaches us that productive, useful people do not just sit there. Besides, there’s a million things to do. Mow the grass, do the laundry, study for an exam, do the work someone’s paying us to do, play solitaire on the computer, and on and on. “Don’t just sit there,” says the world around us, “do something.”

But silence that feeds our spirits says, “Don’t just do something, sit there.”

To follow that urging, the first thing you’re going to have to do is give yourself permission to stop, sit down, be quiet. Remind yourself that all that stuff will be there when you return from silence. It’s not going anywhere. Well, that’s not completely true. Some of it does go away when you get quiet and listen. That’s because answers you’ve been searching for arrive in the silence. Answers you couldn’t hear in the noise.

I’ve often found that when I think I’m too busy to take time for silence, that’s just when I need it the most. That’s because I’m too busy. And when I take time for silence, even five or ten minutes, instead of having less time to get my busy work done, it feels as if I actually have more. I emerge from silence calmer and thinking more clearly than I did before. And ready to act out of that clearness and calmness rather than anxiety or pressure.

Then, I move through the next hours busy outwardly, but centered and silent inwardly. Speaking from experience, learning to do that does not happen overnight. Amazon Prime is not going to ship it via drone for same-day delivery. It comes only via practice.

So, the next time you’re really swamped and the alligators are up to your neck, you can decide to go into full panic mode . . . or you can take a breath. A breath doesn’t keep the gators from circling nearer, but it creates space for solutions. Good solutions. So, take a breath.

1. Get silent in your soul.

2. If you are a spiritual person, invite God (or whatever name/word works for you) to reengage with you there.

3. Listen for that which runs deeps and sticks. That which satisfies.

Silence in the shape of your heart can become an active constant communion with the deepest part of your being.

Another thing I’ve found helpful in learning the way of inner stillness is to take what I call little Sabbaths of silence. A quiet time out.

The first thing I do in one of those is to shut up. My friend Marta once gave me a custom-made pillow that says, “Stop Talking.” That’s advice I need — for me to turn the word tap off for a while. I re-center amid the hectic pace that is my life and reorient my soul a bit. I check what words I’m really going to need to say and those which I need to lay aside.

A second thing I do is disconnect electronically. I post a notice on Facebook and other social media (“I’m going to be quiet now. My soul needs it. Ta-ta”). I set the auto reply on my email programs (all three of them!) to say that I’m taking a “silence break” and will be back in touch soon. I put my computer to sleep, set down the iPad, and shut off the phone’s ringer. I turn my chair toward the window or go for a walk outside.

Yes, even then, I’m still swathed in sound. Internal and external. But slowly, as I strip away the sounds that I’ve added to my life, calming comes. Extraneous sounds, within and without, fade. My breathing deepens. I come more fully into a place of attention to the life I’ve been given — including my spiritual life. I return to my earlier tasks refreshed and renewed — with a new clarity of purpose and direction. All because I took time for stillness.

When I was in college, I experienced that the daily practice of carrying silence with me amid the thousand clamoring voices that constantly surround me was important to both my spiritual and emotional health. It is a spiritual practice that revives and centers me even now. And so, I humbly offer this concept of soulful stillness to you. I invite you to listen to that within you that says “stop, breathe, listen.”

“Be quiet,” he explained.

J. Brent Bill is a photographer, retreat leader, and Quaker minister. In addition, he's written or co-written more than 20 books, including Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality and Life Lessons from a Bad Quaker. Brent has served as a local church pastor, a seminary faculty member, and a go-cart track operator. He lives on Ploughshares Farm, which is 50 acres of Indiana farmland he's turning back into native hardwood forest and a warm season grass prairie. He can be contacted at brentbil@brentbill.com.